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sci-fi

Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

DIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams

CAST: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid, Richard E. Grant, Domhnall Gleeson, Keri Russell, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Anthony Daniels

REVIEW:

In my previous reviews, I considered J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens—the first installment of Disney’s continuation of the Star Wars saga after acquiring Lucasfilm from creator George Lucas—to be (despite some valid criticisms about it being more-or-less a reworked variation of A New Hope) a promising launching pad. Alas, that promise was squandered by the follow-up, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which received some praise but proved deeply divisive among fans and which I unfortunately came down on the negative side of, considering it both narratively unwieldy and having the feel of a Star Wars movie by someone who doesn’t like Star Wars and determined to deconstruct and subvert expectations at every turn for its own sake without having anything satisfying to replace them with. And now, with J.J. Abrams retaking the director’s chair—reportedly due to Lucasfilm head honcho Kathleen Kennedy deciding to go in a “safer” direction after the mixed response to The Last Jedi—we get Overcorrection: The Movie. In fairness to Abrams, he came back onboard with strikes against him: Johnson undoing some of the groundwork he’d laid in the first place, as well as the offscreen death of Carrie Fisher. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, Abrams has not succeeded in righting the ship enough to end on a strong note. Rise of Skywalker is scattershot and convoluted, filled with extraneous characters, a poorly-focused narrative, and an overly frenetic pace that seldom slows down enough to make much sense of anything (not that there’s much sense to be found).

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The Predator (2018)

DIRECTOR: Shane Black

CAST: Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Thomas Jane, Keegan-Michael Key, Augusto Aguilera, Alfie Allen, Yvonne Strahovski, Jake Busey

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL DISCUSS “SPOILERS”

Like the Alien franchise it has occasionally ill-advisedly crossed over with, Predator is one of those franchises that keeps limping along long past its expiration date.  One could argue that in fact Predator was never even much of a franchise to begin with.  1987’s original wasn’t any kind of great movie, and doesn’t hold up as a sci-fi thriller classic on the level of Alien or Aliens, but it featured Arnold Schwarzenegger at his most cigar-chomping and one-liner-spouting (“get to da choppa!”) front-and-center, surrounded by a merry band of macho men (with a cast including fellow future Governor Jesse Ventura, along with Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers, Bill Duke, and Sonny Landham, it was sort of like a forerunner to The Expendables), and served up enough hardcore action with a sci-fi twist to be a popular “man’s movie” (the 1990 sequel, starring Danny Glover, wasn’t as good, although it had its moments).  After two crossovers dubbed Alien vs. Predator, the concept of which was dubious and the execution worse, Nimrod Antal and Robert Rodriguez tried to course correct by getting back to the basics with 2010’s Predators, which again had its moments but not enough to resurrect a “franchise” that arguably never warranted being stretched out into a film series in the first place.  And now, just when Predator seemed dead (again), along comes Shane Black (a cast member of the original movie but better-known as a screenwriter/director, including writing the Lethal Weapon series and directing such films as Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys).  Alas, Black’s involvement with the original film does not signal a return to that quality level.  The Predator falls into the same category as the likes of Independence Day: Resurgence and Alien: Resurrection, a sloppy, uninspired, past-its-sell-date sequel that fails to breathe any fresh life into a series that has long since run dry. Continue reading

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

DIRECTOR: J.A. Bayona

CAST: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Daniella Penada, Justice Smith, Isabella Sermon, Ted Levine, Toby Jones, B.D. Wong, James Cromwell, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum

REVIEW:

Fallen Kingdom, the second installment in the Jurassic Park “reboot” rebranded as Jurassic World (or fifth in the overall franchise) proves it’s still possible to inject a little rejuvenating freshness into a concept—people running around menaced by dinosaurs—that had seemed milked to the last drop.  While 2015’s Jurassic World (despite being a big enough box office smash to greenlight sequels) was overly bogged down in nostalgic callbacks and recycled material, Fallen Kingdom goes in some refreshingly different directions, including fulfilling my biggest wish list for a sequel: get off the damn island already. Continue reading

Rampage (2018)

DIRECTOR: Brad Peyton

CAST: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello

REVIEW:

Is it possible for a movie to embody the adage “go big or go home” and miss it at the same time?  Rampage (loosely based on a 1980s arcade game) takes too long to rampage.  Like many a “meh” disaster/monster movie, entirely too much time is spent on the “storylines” of one-dimensional human characters scurrying around underfoot and getting in the way of the monster-on-monster rumble that, let’s face it, is the part of the movie everyone bought a ticket for.  Fans of pseudo-Godzilla/King Kong giant mutant monster action might find enough here to wet their appetite, but maybe not enough for a full course. Continue reading

A Quiet Place (2018)

DIRECTOR: John Krasinski

CAST: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe

REVIEW:

A Quiet Place, from writer/director/co-star John Krasinski (whose screenplay is a rewrite of a script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck), is an experimental venture into understated terror that does most things adequately, a few things exceptionally, but ultimately doesn’t have enough distinguishing itself to ascend to horror classic.  The result is an interestingly offbeat diversion, but ultimately feels a little insubstantial and shallowly-developed when all is said and done. Continue reading

Ready Player One (2018)

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

CAST: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, Philip Zao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg

REVIEW:

Ready Player One might be the biggest special effects extravaganza since James Cameron’s Avatar nearly a decade ago, and while it won’t necessarily go down as a classic on the level of Steven Spielberg’s most beloved films, it resurrects some of the old Spielbergian magic that many thought flickered out a long time ago (his last attempt at hearkening back to the lighthearted sense of fun he once possessed before Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, felt low energy and tired and only flirted with recapturing it in fits and starts).  Many movies aspire to be referred to as “eye candy”, but it’s well-deserved here.  Ready Player One might not be the most consequential movie Spielberg has directed in a long time, but it’s easily the most fun. Continue reading

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

DIRECTOR: Steven S. DeKnight

CAST: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Tian Jing, Rinko Kikuchi

REVIEW:

Among superfluous sequels slapped-together because the original was deemed to make sufficient profits (2013’s Pacific Rim did not do that well in the US, but was big in China, which persuaded Universal and Chinese-owned Legendary Pictures to cough up the money for a second installment), Pacific Rim: Uprising is at least a fresher and more enjoyable experience than the tired, low energy likes of Independence Day: Resurgence or London Has Fallen.  The first Pacific Rim was not a great movie, but Guillermo Del Toro crafted it as an obvious passion project and a love letter to both the anime and kaiju—Japanese monster movie—genres (probably why it was more popular in Asia than the United States), and served up a smorgasbord of geeky fun for those who simply delighted in the big-budget, splashy special effects-filled spectacle of giant monsters duking it out with giant robots.  Like many sequels, Uprising tries to serve up bigger—the climactic battle royale pits four Jaeger robots against a supersized kaiju—but serves up enough of more of the same to entertain fans of what the first had to offer.  If you’re the audience for this, you probably know who you are by now. Continue reading

Annihilation (2018)

DIRECTOR: Alex Garland

CAST: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi

REVIEW:

While a sci-fi fan, I confess to a certain weariness of this kind of pretentiously obtuse existential variation on the genre that, like Arrival, seems to feel maddening ambiguity makes it look unfathomably complex and intelligent (both films had critics falling all over each other to praise them as exactly that).  Alex Garland’s first film since his directorial debut Ex Machina and an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation boasts some nice visuals and creepy moments, but mistakes ambiguity for its own sake with profundity, and strings the audience along for non-answers that are neither illuminating nor narratively satisfying enough to make the winding journey worth undertaking.  “I don’t know” is a line uttered repetitively throughout the film, and walking out of the theater, many audience members may say the same when asked what they just watched. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

CAST: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis

REVIEW:

SPOILER WARNING: I HAVE STRIVED TO NOT REVEAL EXPLICIT SPOILERS; HOWEVER IT IS DIFFICULT TO EXPRESS MY OPINION WITHOUT DISCUSSING SOME “SPOILER” PLOT ELEMENTS.

Picking up where J.J. Abrams left off with 2015’s The Force Awakens, writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper) has taken us back to a galaxy far, far away and chosen to subvert fan expectations and go in some unexpected directions, with mixed results.  Johnson doesn’t play it as safe as Abrams (who received some criticism for more-or-less remaking a tweaked version of A New Hope), but defying expectations in and of itself does not a satisfying narrative make.  The third act kicking into high gear does not entirely make up for a previous fragmented plot with flagging momentum.  The Last Jedi, while receiving general critical praise, is already proving divisive among fans.  It ultimately arrives at a few tremendous moments, but the path there is unwieldy and meandering, and the conclusion not entirely satisfying. Continue reading

The Shape of Water (2017)

DIRECTOR: Guillermo Del Toro

CAST: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones

REVIEW:

The Shape of Water, offbeat writer-director Guillermo Del Toro’s latest offering, is essentially an adult romantic fairy tale wrapped up in an homage to 1950s-era monster movies.  It’s weird and artsy—two qualities that should be expected in a Del Toro film—but also earnest and heartfelt, and speaks to Del Toro being a romantic at heart. Continue reading

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